What’s Next for Lake Whatcom?

by Franny Vollert

Silver Beach Neighborhood Base Map
(source: City of Bellingham (COB))

A moratorium on development, intended to protect Bellingham’s primary source of drinking water, has been extended, leaving developers scrambling for faster options. 

The Silver Beach moratorium was initially put in place in July of 2022 for one year. During that time the City of Bellingham was facing a conflict between the need for affordable housing in the area and the necessity of protecting the main source of drinking water for the city. Lake Whatcom provides water for over 100,000 residents in Whatcom County.

“I think the biggest driving factor was the potential for conflict between the watershed protection — the desire to minimize the impacts of development — and the potential for higher density multifamily areas to take on a lot more developments,” said Blake Lyon, director of Planning and Community Development for the city.

Bellingham declared a housing crisis earlier this year due to rising rates of homelessness and a lack of affordable housing options, making development of particular importance. However, the city is attempting to ensure that it is done the right way.

Six-Month Extension
In light of these competing priorities, city staff conducted an analysis, attempting to find an appropriate scale of development for the area while making sure adequate protections for stormwater treatment were in place. 

After coming back with that analysis, staff decided that an additional six-month extension of the moratorium was necessary. The biggest factor influencing the second extension was the need for the city to go through what is known as the type-six process. The process includes, among other pieces, an application, an environmental review, a public hearing, and an eventual decision from the City Council. 

According to Michael Lilliquist of the City Council, “City staff need additional time to continue work on this important issue.” The public hearing addressing the moratorium took place on Nov. 24.

Silver Beach Neighborhood
The conflict between water quality and affordable housing is particularly evident in the Silver Beach neighborhood, which sits directly on the lake and houses over 3,000 residents. This neighborhood is included in the only area on the lake under city jurisdiction, making it the object of the moratorium. 

Looking at the topography of Silver Beach, city staff are concerned about water runoff that would come out of new development in the area. Runoff is a concern due to phosphorous, a mineral released when development disturbs soil on the shores of the lake.

Stormwater Management
Quite possibly the most important piece of the city’s analysis revolves around stormwater management in Silver Beach. Stormwater management includes controlling water runoff, primarily coming from impervious surfaces. When effectively done, it reduces water pollution and slows runoff. 

Why does stormwater management matter from a development perspective? Development disturbs soil, which can contain phosphorous, a chemical that can be detrimental to water quality when it enters the lake, creating algal blooms that harm human and animal health.

According to the City Council, additional development can offset the costs of treating stormwater. This is only true if the development is done under the proper requirements, making new stormwater management regulations that much more of a necessity.

Phosphorus Loading
Water Quality Lead for the Washington Department of Ecology, James Kardouni, identified the developed areas in the Silver Beach neighborhood as being the biggest contributors to phosphorous loading in the lake. “We have to be very careful where we [develop],” he said.

“The main problem in Lake Whatcom is an excess of what is known as phosphorous,” said Alexander Harris, land and water policy manager for RE Sources Bellingham, an environmental nonprofit. 

Harris shared his thoughts about the current state of development on Lake Whatcom, as well as the implications of further projects. Industrial pollution is a main issue, especially with large-scale projects that will be allowed if the moratorium is lifted. “One of the biggest problems in the Lake Whatcom watershed is how much development there is,” he said.

Old Mill Village Proposal
During the public hearing on Nov. 24, the City Council heard a development proposal voiced by Jon Sitkin, attorney for Peak Management. Peak is an out-of-state company based in Michigan, and they own the property known as Old Mill Village, a 112-unit housing complex located directly on the lake. 

Old Mill Village sits on the former site of Larson Mill, a lumber mill that was in operation until the 1960s. The construction of Old Mill Village began in 1976 and finished in 1984. According to Kerri Burnside, the soil in the area has never been tested, and the development sits on private property, preventing the City of Bellingham from taking any action. 

While Peak didn’t develop the site, the company purchased it for $24 million in June of 2022, just one month before the moratorium took effect. 

Peak’s proposal would bring around 300 additional units to the property around Old Mill Village. Sitkin proposed that the city lift the moratorium on low- and medium-density development, as their building would fall under the medium-density category. Additionally, though they would be building under the designation of multifamily housing, they would only aim to meet stormwater regulations already in place for single-family development.

“There are no stormwater facilities or phosphorous reduction facilities at this site and the only way to really bring them … is redevelopment of the site adding new units to leverage that,” Sitkin said to the City Council. 

Proposal Rejected
The proposal was ultimately rejected, with council members and city staff concluding that it was not an appropriate course of action given the steps that still need to be taken.

“Part of what the type-six process does is allows for public input,” said Blake Lyon, the city’s director of Planning and Community Development. “By pursuing that effort, it would not allow for that kind of public conversation to occur.”

“If you look at the Old Mill Village site, for example, there’s a fair amount of impervious surface there now that’s not being treated,” said Steve Sundin, Senior Planner for the city. “If the rule was to be rewritten, we’d have the ability to have some retroactive facilities in place as well,” he said.

Much of the public input and concern has come from residents in the Silver Beach neighborhood who would be directly impacted by further development. Kerri Burnside, President of the Silver Beach Neighborhood Association, has been the voice of many of these concerns.

Burnside, a resident of Old Mill Village for eight years, has been involved with the issue of water quality in her community for over a year. She cares deeply about her fellow community members and aims to bring awareness to the possible impacts of further development in the watershed.

Goal for Lake Whatcom Reservoir
“The goal for the water reservoir is no more building,” Burnside said in support of the moratorium. There are already many areas in Silver Beach that have high-density and multifamily dwellings, with storm drains that go directly into the watershed. While she recognizes that new development can offset stormwater treatment costs, she believes the city should be looking at other funding sources to correct and retrofit storm drains. 

Burnside also has concerns about Peak. Being an out-of-state company, they are not affected by the issue of water quality and therefore have less motivation to protect it. According to Burnside, their main interests lie more in investment than community concerns.

Residents Priced Out of Homes
“They are proposing adding more supply to our housing stock, but it’s not affordable housing,” Burnside said of the properties being priced at market value. There have already been concerns about rent increases at Old Mill Village, with some residents being priced out of their homes after Peak acquired the property. 

Burnside and the rest of the SBNA want more opportunities for public comment during this type-six process. “With a public hearing, you only get three minutes to talk,” she said, stressing the need for town-hall-style meetings where people can ask questions and back-and-forth discussion can take place.

“I am hoping to stress that we are in a defining moment in history,” Burnside said. She believes that this is an issue impacting more than just Silver Beach residents. “Our goal is to bring awareness to the community that this impacts everyone … because this is our drinking water,” she said.

“In theory, you can develop and still protect water quality,” said Kardouni. “I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with making sure development is done properly before proceeding.”

Harris feels differently about the implications development poses. “The Lake Whatcom watershed has already seen too much development, and future generations are going to pay the price for that,” Harris said.  


Franny Vollert is 19 years old and a second-year (sophomore) student at Western Washington University. Franny is majoring in journalism with a news/ editorial concentration, and is originally from Portland, Oregon.

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